Abstract Expressionism and the CIA: Waging A Cultural Cold War?

Nothing is more American than Abstract Expressionism: its style embodies freedom and personal expression. What better way than this for the CIA to combat the rigid style of Socialist Realism?

Feb 21, 2021By Anna Sexton, MA & BA Art History, BA Int'l Relations
abstract expressionism CIA
Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1938; with Young Nelson Rockefeller admiring a painting to be hung in the new building of MoMA, 1939


Although differing art perspectives were simply one ideological aspect of the Cold War, they were very important in influencing Western Europe’s intelligentsia and inspiring cultural rebellions behind the Iron Curtain. However, the spread of Abstract Expressionism and its incredibly fast rise to prominence on the global art scene could not have happened naturally. The CIA played a key role in spreading both the style and its ideology worldwide to combat the opposing style of Socialist Realism and, by extension, communist culture at large. 


Socialist Realism: The Antithesis To Abstract Expressionism

Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin by Aleksandr Gerasimov, 1938, in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


When comparing the two styles, it is quite evident that they could not be more different from one another. While Abstract Expressionism promotes the concept of creating art solely for the sake of art, Socialist Realism focuses on creating easy-to-understand messages for the masses. 


Socialist Realism is just what it sounds like: the artist must draw and paint figures from life in a highly accurate way. An excellent example of this is Stalin and Voroshilov in the Kremlin (1938) by Aleksandr Gerasimov. Ironically, as can be seen in Gerasimov’s painting, Soviet leaders tend to be depicted as almost God-like, which is unexpected for a collectivist society to encourage the veneration of an individual.


Unlike most art movements, Socialist Realism was imposed from above rather than informally spreading through society. The Soviet Union led a fierce campaign in favor of the Socialist Realism movement because it embodied the utilitarian and working-class ideals of communism.  


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The shift to total control of all aspects of culture came with the rise of Joseph Stalin in 1924. Beforehand, avant-garde movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, and Suprematism were tolerated and even encouraged by the Soviet government. This freedom simply reflected the lack of attention the government gave to cultural matters at the onset of the USSR.


Kolkhoz Holiday by Sergey Vasilyevich Gerasimov, 1937, via Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


Stalin believed that art must serve a functional purpose. For him, this meant positive images of the daily life of the proletariat in communist Russia. In 1934, Socialist Realism officially became the state-sanctioned and only acceptable art form in the USSR. However, the movement was largely confined to communist countries where the government regulated art and did not catch on further abroad.


The 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers defined acceptable art to be:


1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.

  1. Typical: Scenes of everyday life of the people.
  2. Realistic: In the representational sense.
  3. Partisan: Supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.


Any work that did not fall under these criteria was deemed to be capitalist and unfit for a utilitarian society.


Abstract Expressionism As A Symbol Of America

Alchemy by Jackson Pollock, 1947, via the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


Before the 1950s, the United States was considered to be a provincial backwater of the art world. However, due to the devastation caused by World War II, many artists fled to the US. It was these émigrés’ progressive creativity, along with American artists such as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, who then developed Abstract Expressionism. What makes the movement so distinct is that its rise to international prominence coincides with the US becoming the most powerful country in the post-war era. 


Abstract Expressionist art can be defined by a few broad characteristics: all forms are abstract, they cannot be found in the visible world, and the works represent a free, spontaneous, and personal emotional expression. However, it is also considered to be “high” art because some degree of background knowledge is necessary to fully appreciate the work. This renders it less accessible to the masses, unlike that of Socialist Realism.


Gothic Landscape by Lee Krasner, 1961, via Tate, London


The main difference between the movements is, while Socialist Realist works are steeped with political propaganda, Abstract Expressionist pieces are completely devoid of any political message. The forms depicted do not represent anything but the strokes of paint on canvas or the twisting of metal into a shape. The viewer separates the life of the artist from his or her work and can let the piece stand alone, independent from its creator. The value of abstract art is intrinsic unto itself, and its purpose is solely aesthetic. It does not aim to teach lessons or promote an ideology. Abstract Expressionist artists reduce their forms down to the most basic building blocks of their medium: paint and the canvas.


Abstract Expressionism’s Communist Paradox

Dusk by William Baziotes, 1958, via the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York


Oddly enough, the CIA even had to circumvent the US government to promote the spread of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Many conservative politicians condemned the movement as being too avant-garde, un-American, and, ironically, even communist. In 1947, the State Department withdrew a touring exhibition entitled “Advancing American Art” because they thought the styles exhibited reflected badly on American society. In addition to canceling, Congress also issued a directive ordering that no American artist with a communist background could be exhibited at the government’s expense.


The politicians condemning the movement were not entirely crazy. Although Abstract Expressionism embodies the fundamental values of American freedom of expression, a majority of the movement’s artists actually had ties to communism. Many of the artists began their careers working for the Federal Arts Project during the Great Depression; in other words, working to produce subsidized art for the government. More specifically, in the 1930s, Jackson Pollock worked in the studio of muralist and staunch communist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Additionally, the expressionist artists Adolph Gottlieb and William Baziotes were known communist activists.


However, the innate quality of Abstract Expressionist art involves a complete lack of representation of political values. The CIA must have realized that the movement, removed from the personal lives of its artists, was the perfect antidote to Socialist Realism. They then pushed forward in making it the artistic face of American ideologies.


The CIA’s Operations

Vladimir Lenin in Smolny by Isaak Israilevich Brodsky, 1930, via Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


To promote aspects of American culture abroad, the CIA had a “Long Leash” policy in place, which effectively distanced the organization from their actions in cultural sectors. In this case, the CIA used the Congress for Cultural Freedom as well as its connections to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to influence the art world in favor of Abstract Expressionism. The CIA operated under the theory that progressive artists need an elite to subsidize them to achieve success. Therefore, it turned to MoMA, an incredibly elite institution, and gave them funding through covert organizations and its secret board member connections.  


Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an organization covertly run by the CIA under the Long-Leash program, they were able to secretly fund over 20 anti-communist magazines, hold art exhibitions, organize international conferences, and run a news service. The goal was to ensure that European intelligentsia came to associate American culture with modernity and cosmopolitanism. However, this organization was not the only avenue used to participate in the cultural cold war.


In order to advance its objectives, the CIA also turned to the private sector. The majority of American museums are privately owned, which made it easier for the CIA to work around the government. Honing in on the Museum of Modern Art, the CIA established connections with many of its board members. The most telling link between the museum and the CIA was its president.


Young Nelson Rockefeller admiring a painting to be hung in the new building of MoMA, 1939, via Sotheby’s


At the time, the president of MoMA was Nelson Rockefeller. He was also a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a think-tank sub-contracted by the government to study foreign affairs. Through this think tank, the CIA gave MoMA a five-year grant of $125,000 to fund the museum’s International Program, which was responsible for loaning its collections to European institutions. By 1956, MoMA had organized 33 international exhibitions devoted to Abstract Expressionism, all funded by the grant. At one point, MoMA loaned out so many pieces that people complained of an empty museum.


Long-Term Effects Of Abstract Expressionism During The Cold War

The Seer by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950, via the Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.


The Cold War was very ideologically charged: it was a battle between opposing political systems. It is therefore only natural that the spread of culture played such an important role. The CIA employed the most effective sort of propaganda, the sort which influences the minds of people without them realizing it. Eventually, their covert methods made Abstract Expressionism so popular that it became quite difficult for an artist to find success working in any other style. 


The CIA’s tactics soon paid off. By popularizing the movement in the United States and Western Europe, Abstract Expressionism slowly made its way behind the Iron Curtain. Artists from Eastern Europe would visit exhibitions in other countries and then return home enlightened by what they saw. In 1956, the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor saw one of the many CIA-funded exhibitions sent to Paris. He was deeply impacted by the show and returned to Kraków determined to move the artistic climate towards abstraction. This was seen as an act of rebellion, as Kantor moved decidedly away from the state-mandated style of Socialist Realism. Five years later, he and 14 other Polish artists were given an exhibition at MoMA entitled “Fifteen Polish Painters.”


40 – figure by Tadeusz Kantor, 1967, via Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw


Throughout the duration of the Cold War, there is no denying that the influence of Abstract Expressionism had a profound impact on the cultural outcomes. Not only was abstract art widely received in the West, but Eastern European countries also recognized the movement as the perfect antidote to state-sanctioned socialist art. Artists behind the Iron Curtain began to embrace the movement as a revolutionary expression of freedom. Thus, the once apolitical style of Abstract Expressionism became an act of rebellion.

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By Anna SextonMA & BA Art History, BA Int'l RelationsAnna holds a Master in Art History from the Université de Strasbourg as well as a BA from the University of Washington in Art History and International Relations. Her specialization is in provenance research and the history of collections. She has worked in several museums and art galleries in Seattle, Dresden, Leipzig, Cologne, and Strasbourg. When she is not writing & researching, Anna enjoys dancing ballet, learning languages, doing crosswords, and drinking tea.